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CD Review

Dmitri Shostakovich

LPO 80
  • Symphony #6, Op. 54
  • Symphony #14, Op. 135 *
* Tatiana Monogarova, soprano
* Sergei Leiferkus, baritone
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
London Philharmonic LPO-0080 77:58
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Does anybody remember Sir Adrian Boult's Everest recording of Shostakovich's Symphony #6? I do, because I reviewed it, but it's less a great recording and more of a recording that shocks with its quality given the performers at the time. Boult was probably a perfectly fine English gentleman, which is exactly why Shostakovich is so unique given the source. Vladimir Jurowski is a whole different story. He's an exceptional conductor of Russian music who has rejuvenated the London Philharmonic Orchestra and brought it to the attention of critics across the pond. Whereas I was shocked to hear Boult in this music, I was very eager to hear Jurowski. He did not disappoint.

I've been unlucky with the Symphony #6 on disc. I'm not conceited enough to believe that any of you care what's on my shelf, but my previous recordings of this work have not been especially good. The labored Bernstein Vienna version, the flawed Rostropovich, the exciting but badly recorded Reiner on Guild…all of these fall short in various ways. Mravinsky is simply exciting as hell, but horribly recorded. Boult's reading has the still-terrific Everest sound, but nobody would ever call Sir Adrian "exciting as hell". Enter Jurowski, who earned praise worldwide for his Tchaikovsky Manfred. That's a piece that almost everybody gets wrong, and so you can pretty much expect that this will go right. It does, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra sounds magnificent. Standards of playing have improved so dramatically over the last decade or so within this ensemble that it's difficult to believe this is the same band that made so many colorless recordings under Klaus Tennstedt. I have been covering the orchestra's in-house label extensively here in Fall 2015, and have noted the wide gap in technical polish from release to release. It's just how this orchestra works.

So it's gratifying to hear everyone in such good form here. The grittiness and weight this music requires is all there, along with the sardonic humor. Of those three required items, the English tend to provide only the last; sometimes they just sound bored. Stanislaw Skrowaczewski managed to turn this ensemble into a glowing Bruckner machine, so perhaps it isn't so shocking that a galvanizing force on the podium can work such wonders. But, all my babbling aside, this is a terrific Sixth. It's great to see that there's another orchestra in Brittan that can really dig into this music – the London Symphony Orchestra is the other – and the deal is further sweetened by a generous and well done coupling in the form of the composer's harrowing Fourteenth Symphony.

Here, the competition is at once very select and very stiff. There's Rudolf Barshai, who mastered the complete symphonies, transcribed the string quartets, and premiered this work. There's Rostropovich, who gave us perhaps the darkest and most crushing of all. And finally, there's Petrenko on Naxos, who comes very close to Rostropovich while featuring fine soloists and outstanding recorded sound. And that's really it, though there are doubtless other favorites and contenders. While not surpassing these classic efforts, there is much to appreciate here, not least the fine playing of the London Philharmonic and good solo singing. This is a very generous coupling, and worth seeking out for fans of the composer or artists.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman